The Japanese director Hirokazu Koreeda is best known these days for his family dramas, which have a wonderful warmth and naturalism that makes them very appealing to audiences, yet are thoughtfully and subtly made enough to endear to critics too. His films are hardly well-known in the West but in Japan they鈥檙e very successful, with his more recent titles bringing home the type of box-office figures Hollywood blockbusters might enjoy.

It wasn鈥檛 always like this though. He started out directing documentaries, often for TV, before venturing into directing fiction films with Maborosi. This was very much an arthouse film, released in 1995 at a time when Japan didn鈥檛 make many films outside genre moulds. When Maborosi and some other similarly non-mainstream Japanese films made waves on the festival circuit, however, winning some prestigious awards, we began to see a wave of arthouse titles coming out of the country, bringing back some of the worldwide respect Japan cinema had enjoyed in the 50s and 60s when Kurosawa, Ozu and Mizoguchi were being discovered.

Koreeda鈥檚 work gradually became more mainstream after that, aided by the success of his second film, After Life, but never at the expense of quality. The BFI have put together a wonderful set of four films, spanning the first half of Koreeda鈥檚 career so far. The titles include Maborosi, After Life, Nobody Knows and Still Walking. These aren鈥檛 all the films Koreeda directed in this period, but all four loosely share themes of loss and unconventional families so make for a perfect set.

I鈥檓 a fan of Koreeda鈥檚 work and very much enjoyed Arrow鈥檚 Family Values set (which I reviewed last year) so I was keen to delve into this one when I was offered a copy to review. Below are my brief thoughts on the films included in the set and a look at the features and transfers.

Maborosi

Director: Hirokazu Koreeda
Screenplay: Yoshihisa Ogita
Based on a Novel by: Teru Miyamoto
Starring: Makiko Esumi,聽Takashi Nait么,聽Tadanobu Asano, Gohki Kashiyama, Naomi Watanabe
Country: Japan
Running Time: 109 min
Year: 1995

Maborosi (a.k.a. Maboroshi no hikari) sees Makiko Esumi play Yumiko, a young woman whose husband Ikuo (Tadanobu Asano) commits suicide suddenly, with seemingly little reason, leaving her to look after their baby son alone. Devastated by the tragedy, she becomes a shell of her former self. After a few years, she remarries someone she鈥檚 never met before, through an arrangement. She heads off with her son to live with her new husband Tamio (Takashi Nait么) in a small coastal village, far from home in Osaka. She slowly warms to this new life but a trip back for her brother鈥檚 wedding brings back the pain, guilt and frustration concerning Ikuo鈥檚 death, so she retreats to an internal state once again.

I had actually seen Maborosi prior to this but it was a while ago, before I was aware of Koreeda鈥檚 work as a whole. As such, it was a surprise to see how much this differed from the rest of his films. On paper, it sounds like another family drama from the director, but in focusing so intently on Yumiko it鈥檚 more of a personal story than an ensemble family piece. More notably though is the difference in style. Whereas most of Koreeda鈥檚 work has an organic, naturalistic feel with a relatively conventional cutting style, Maborosi is much more stylistically presented. It uses only natural light, so has a natural look at first glance, but every frame is very carefully composed and largely static using wide shots held for a long time. There鈥檚 a painterly, artistic quality to the visuals that isn鈥檛 as prevalent in Koreeda鈥檚 later work and is more reminiscent of some of the Taiwanese New Wave directors he has professed to initially modelling himself on.

This style means the film is a little more distancing and cold than the rest of the director鈥檚 work but this fits the themes and subject matter of the film, so it鈥檚 an effective approach, even if it makes it harder to warm to.

A lot of Koreeda鈥檚 regular qualities are already here though. His ability to get superb performances from his actors is clear in the film, with Esumi doing a particularly great job with a lead role lacking in dialogue but heavy on inner-turmoil. Koreeda鈥檚 ability to tell a story visually through small details and economic storytelling is prevalent too. The film may seem slight in story and slow-moving but you鈥檇 be hard-pressed to find a pointless scene. Everything has its place, even if its purpose isn鈥檛 immediately apparent.

Overall, it鈥檚 a wonderfully understated and quietly powerful drama. It keeps the audience at a slight distance so it isn鈥檛 as emotionally powerful as some similarly themed dramas but it鈥檚 incredibly beautiful and sensitively told. It certainly signalled a fine start for Koreeda鈥檚 fictional film career, even if his style changed quite dramatically following this.

After Life

Director: Hirokazu Koreeda
Screenplay: Hirokazu Koreeda
Starring: Arata Iura,聽Erika Oda,聽Susumu Terajima, Takashi Nait么, Taketoshi Nait么, Y没suke Iseya
Country: Japan
Running Time: 119 min
Year: 1998

After Life (a.k.a. Wandafuru raifu) was Koreeda鈥檚 second fiction feature, with the documentary Without Memory coming in-between this and Maborosi. It鈥檚 a fantasy-drama set in an administrative facility that everyone goes to after they die before moving on to their eternal resting place. In this fairly dilapidated-looking building, the staff explain to each weekly batch of the newly-dead that they have a week to pick one memory they will live with for eternity. This memory will be turned into a film by the staff in the latter half of the week and the dead will move on to the next stage after viewing their film on the final evening.

It鈥檚 a wonderful concept that feels miles apart from the realistic family dramas Koreeda is best-known for. However, there are more similarities than you might imagine. For one, his naturalistic style is still present. The dead aren鈥檛 floating around with halos in shiny, magical surroundings or covered in gory scars indicating their demise. The facility looks like a beaten up old school building and staff and the dead all look healthy and wear basic everyday clothes. There are no special effects, just a couple of practical tricks such as a bright light coming from outside the entrance as people first enter the building or having people not present in their cinema seats once the lights come up after they鈥檝e watched their memory-films.

Also grounding the film and keeping it in line with most of Koreeda鈥檚 work is the treatment of the team of staff members. They become a type of family in the film with their worries, little squabbles and nurturing relationships. Their story provides the backbone of the otherwise gently meandering structure, particularly after you learn the reason why the staff have been chosen to deliver this service.

This brings me to one of the other things I like about the film. Although it is very much a high-concept piece, it doesn鈥檛 get bogged down in explaining every detail of its world. Those who prefer fully-realised, complicated fantasy creations may be disappointed but I admired the simplicity. It allows the film to focus on the hugely thought-provoking ideas of what might constitute the perfect memory, how people take stock of their lives and whether or not you鈥檇 want to live with just one memory for eternity.

The concept also works as a study of filmmaking, due to the idea that these memories are filmed re-interpretations of life rather than having the dead re-live the actual chosen moment. It plays with the idea of films never quite being the real thing but intended to trigger sensations of memory.

Simply hearing the stories of people鈥檚 widely varied memories is captivating and often touching too. Koreeda interviewed some random people as well as his actors about the subject before writing the script, so the memories are a hybrid of 鈥榬eal鈥 stories and fictionalised interpretations. It gives the film an extra dimension and a wonderful naturalism in an otherwise fantastical tale.

It鈥檚 an absolutely wonderful film in every way. Unique, sweet and deeply thought-provoking, it鈥檚 philosophical without ever feeling like a lecture and gently enjoyable throughout. It鈥檚 a memory I鈥檇 love to keep for as long as I can and I鈥檓 sure I will.

Nobody Knows

Director: Hirokazu Koreeda
Screenplay: Hirokazu Koreeda
Starring: Y没ya Yagira,聽Ayu Kitaura,聽Hiei Kimura, Momoko Shimizu, Hanae Kan, You
Country: Japan
Running Time: 141 min
Year: 2004

The script for Nobody Knows (a.k.a. Dare mo shiranai) was reportedly the first Koreeda wrote, but it took him many years to finally get to make it. Loosely based on an actual news story, it tells of four children who live in a cramped apartment with their mother Keiko (You – yes that is her full stage name). In order to avoid paying more rent or getting in trouble for having too many kids in the room, she doesn鈥檛 let them leave, other than Akira (Y没ya Yagira) the eldest boy who goes out for food and such when needed. We soon see that Keiko leaves the children to their own devices most of the time, with them doing the shopping, washing and cooking whilst she鈥檚 out 鈥榳orking鈥. This expands further as she disappears for longer periods, eventually abandoning them altogether. The 12-year-old Akira is forced to provide and care for his siblings but there鈥檚 only so much a young boy can do and their situation grows ever direr.

As you might imagine, this doesn鈥檛 match Koreeda鈥檚 sweet-natured sentimental side some of his later films share, such as Our Little Sister. It鈥檚 a horrific story, made ever-more disturbing by the fact it鈥檚 based on reality. However, Koreeda fills the film with enough warmth and humanity where possible to prevent it from being a punishing watch. I found the film鈥檚 devastating climax difficult to get through and the situation the children are in is undeniably heartbreaking, so Koreeda doesn鈥檛 shy away from the harsh reality, but equally he doesn鈥檛 paint in blacks and whites and there are glimmers of hope throughout. Even Keiko isn鈥檛 made out to be a monster. Her actions are never forgiven, but we get hints of the difficulty she faces looking after and financing four children without any support from their various fathers. She鈥檚 made out to be immature rather than evil, making for a believable and rounded character.

It鈥檚 a long film that relies on repetition to tell its story, highlighting small differences as the children鈥檚 routines are steadily affected by their ever-more desperate circumstances. As such, Nobody Knows may seem daunting to approach but the performances and natural interactions between the young leads are captivating (Y没ya Yagira even won the Best Actor award at Cannes for his efforts). Koreeda once again proficiently tells his story through visuals rather than clunky dialogue so it鈥檚 a wonderfully cinematic production, despite the minimal locations and lack of grand, attention-grabbing visuals. This approach and the pull of the characters and performances mean the near-two-and-a-half hour running time never feels drawn out.

Not a lot happens in fact, on the surface, but small moments become very powerful within the situation the film sets up. The joy of all the children leaving the house for the first time in months for instance, or the devastation of the scene where Akira鈥檚 supposed new friends won鈥檛 play with him because his house smells. The build-up of details add to make a rich and powerful experience.

It鈥檚 a film that never aims to milk tears from its audience but is achingly sad as it goes on. It leaves you numb by the end rather than dewy-eyed. As ever, Koreeda directs with great sensitivity and subtlety and does an incredible job with the young cast. It鈥檚 a tough film and not one I鈥檒l rush to see again, but I鈥檓 certainly glad I have seen it as it鈥檚 astoundingly well-crafted.

Still Walking

Director: Hirokazu Koreeda
Screenplay: Hirokazu Koreeda
Starring: Hiroshi Abe,聽Yui Natsukawa,聽You, Kazuya Takahashi, Shohei Tanaka, Kirin Kiki, Yoshio Harada
Country: Japan
Running Time: 115 min
Year: 2008

The most recent film in the set is 2008鈥檚 Still Walking (a.k.a. Aruitemo aruitemo). It鈥檚 set largely over one summer day when the two siblings (Hiroshi Abe and You) and their families meet with their ageing parents (Kirin Kiki and Yoshio Harada) to commemorate the death of Junpei, who was their elder brother. There is much friction among the family as the father, Kyohei, believes Ryota (Abe) abandoned them when he moved away, choosing not to study medicine and take over his GP practice when the elderly man retired, as Junpei planned to do. Kyohei has no respect for Ryota鈥檚 chosen profession as an art restorer either and neither he nor Ryota鈥檚 mother Toshiko fully accept their son鈥檚 marriage to a widow with a child from her first marriage.

Ryota鈥檚 sister Chinami doesn鈥檛 get off lightly either. She lives more locally and is married with her own children but has her heart set on moving into the family home, ready to have it for herself when her parents die. Toshiko doesn鈥檛 fancy the idea of Chinami muscling in on her territory though and bringing her noisy children and lazy husband along. So the group bicker throughout the day, with the spectre of Junpei, who both parents idolise, looming over everything.

Despite my longer-than-usual two-paragraph synopsis, this is a film where very little happens, on the surface at least. It鈥檚 largely just a series of conversations taking place over a day. The characters don鈥檛 even change dramatically over the course of the film, though there are subtle arcs. The film instead works by allowing us to reflect on family dynamics. It observes the differences between traditional and modern approaches to parenting as well as how alternative family units (e.g. step-families) might operate and develop.

This may not sound appealing or substantial but the film is utterly captivating and fully relatable. It feels quite personal in fact. A lot of the content was reportedly taken from Koreeda鈥檚 own past. He lost his mother 2 years before making the film and has said this influenced it greatly and was the main reason why he wanted to do it.

Once again Koreeda鈥檚 approach is wonderfully humane, with believably flawed characters you can easily sympathise with. There鈥檚 a lot of gentle humour too alongside the hidden and not-so-hidden barbs thrown between family members. Much of the characters鈥 true feelings can be seen through subtle glances too and details picked up by the camera and Koreeda鈥檚 sharp editorial eye (he鈥檚 edited most of his films).

So, once again Still Walking is a film that comes highly recommended. It seems to signal his move towards the more down-to-Earth family dramas he has become famous for, though the film is not as sweet or sentimental as it may first seem. It鈥檚 gentle and touching but also shows the ways families can hurt each other, making for a film with many layers despite its seemingly simple construction.

Of Flesh and Blood: The Cinema of Hirokazu Koreeda is out on 12th August on Blu-Ray in the UK, released by the BFI. The picture quality on all titles is fantastic, with a clean, detailed yet natural look. I compared Nobody Knows with a DVD version I had (from ICA) and the difference was staggering. The audio on all the discs is excellent too.

There are plenty of extra features included:

– Limited Edition
– Birthplace聽(2003, 30 mins): actress Makiko Esumi takes the viewer on a tour of the film’s locations, featuring behind-the-scenes stills and on-set footage
– Newly recorded audio commentary on聽Maborosi聽by filmmaker and writer Jasper Sharp
– Hirokazu Koreeda Screentalk聽(2013, 47 mins): the director in conversation with Jasper Sharp at the 2013 London Film Festival
– Interview with Arata聽(2003, 16 mins): an interview with the actor and star of聽After Life, Arata Iura
– Deleted scenes (1998, 17 mins): a selection of deleted scenes from聽After Life
– Newly recorded audio commentary on聽After Life聽by writer and curator Tara Judah
– Behind the Scenes on Nobody Knows聽(2004, 7 mins): Behind-the-scenes footage of Koreeda at work with his cast and crew
– Newly recorded audio commentary on聽Nobody Knows聽by Japanese-Australian filmmaker, writer and academic Kenta McGrath
– Making Still Walking聽(2008, 29 mins): a featurette showing the cast and crew at work behind the scenes
– Still Walking Q&A聽(2019, 33 mins): Hirokazu Koreeda in conversation with Michael Leader at BFI Southbank
– Newly recorded audio commentary on聽Still Walking聽by Alexander Jacoby
– Still Walking聽gallery
– Trailers
– 72-page book including new writing by David Jenkins, Jessica Kiang, Michael Leader, Alexander Jacoby and Jasper Sharp. Also includes interviews with the director, original reviews and full film credits

The commentaries are the stars here. Sharp’s track on Maborosi is excellent. He goes off on a lot of tangents about other films but it’s all of interest. He makes a great point about the importance of Japanese technology on the film industry too, as well as offering insight into Japanese history and how it influenced films in the country. Most of the commentaries delve into this in fact. Judah鈥檚 After Life commentary is great when she’s talking but there’s a lot of empty space where she takes a break, so it ends up being the weakest track. The Nobody Knows and Still Walking commentaries from McGrath and Jacob respectively both take a more consistently analytic approach to the film. These are highly effective in doing so without merely telling us what is clearly happening on screen. There’s little downtime either so they鈥檙e both engaging listens.

The London Film Festival and BFI conversations with Koreeda are both very interesting, delving into his methods and inspirations, as well as offering plenty of fun anecdotes. The couple of 鈥榤aking of鈥 documentaries are a good way of seeing the director at work, particularly the longer Still Walking one. The deleted scenes from After Life are worth a watch too. Most of them are more outwardly comedic than what stayed in the film, paying a lot of attention to a sex-crazed old man and his memories, and as such they鈥檙e a lot of fun but you can see why they didn鈥檛 make the final cut.

The remaining featurettes are a bit odd but worth looking at. The 鈥楤irthplace鈥 documentary feels a bit messy and drawn out but has some lovely moments here and there. The interview with Arata is a series of random questions about memories he has of generic places in his life. It fits the theme of the film I guess but it鈥檚 not all that interesting and soon loses steam.

I didn鈥檛 get a copy of the book to review unfortunately but at that length and with content from such an esteemed list of contributors, it鈥檚 sure to be a cinephile鈥檚 treat.

The set as a whole then is fantastic and I couldn鈥檛 recommend it more. I would be very surprised if it didn鈥檛 end up near the top of my releases of the year in January. With this and the Family Values set Arrow released last year, Koreeda fans are being spoilt in the UK. I hope next someone will release his early documentaries as well as the couple of titles missing from these sets that haven鈥檛 seen the light of day over here, such as Distance and Hana.

Of Flesh and Blood: The Cinema of Hirokazu Koreeda - BFI
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Editor of films and videos as well as of this site. On top of his passion for film, he also has a great love for music and his family.

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